Sunday, 4 March 2012

Traces of Alice.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the famous 'golden afternoon' when Lewis Carroll rowed the Liddell sisters to Godstow and back unravelling extempore the story that would eventually become Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

We're still shaping up our Alice play, which is being performed at Ham House and Garden on April 27th and so this morning I drove up to The Trout Inn on the opposite bank to the priory with the aim of walking back through Port Meadow towards Oxford. Little has changed here in the last century and a half. The busy ring road lies beyond the wide expanse of the meadow and away, clear in the distance, like a floating city itself, the dreaming spires of the town.

It's an idyllic spot to stop for a picnic, a shaded tree and the ruins to explore. Easy to imagine a flight of fancy taking hold of the day.

I headed downstream to Binsey and St Margaret's Church, built next to the Treacle Well which features in the Dormouse's story. The 'treacle' from the well, legend has it, was used by Oxford's patron Saint Frideswide to restore the sight of her unholy pursuer King Algar, who had been struck blind as punishment for his lascivious advances. Frideswide had the church built here to celebrate the miracle.

Back to the river and soon I was in Oxford, climbing up onto Folly Bridge where the boat for Alice's trip would have been hired from and a short walk up St Aldgates to Christchurch itself, where - in Carrollian fashion - an almost friendly bulldog let me slip past the queue.

The College offers some further magical clues to the story. Carroll lived all of his adult life within its confines and, by his own estimation, ate some 8,000 times in the splendid great hall, where long necked creatures provide a guard to the fireplace and a small door at the back of the dais enables Deans to slip in and out of proceedings, as if going down a rabbit hole. I walked through the Cathedral to see the Burne Jones stained glass window with the likeness of Alice's younger sister Edith, who sadly died two weeks before she was due to marry, and on past the Deanery itself. Christchurch is obviously very much a functioning College and so much of what might interest Lewis Carroll tourists is hidden from view - his rooms, the Deanery garden, where many of his photographs were taken and the churchyard where members of Alice's family lie buried.

Alice's fame might be international, but here her friendship with Mr Dodgson, a shy Mathematics Don, is just seen as a tangential event in a continuing history of education and worship. That refusal to acknowledge the populist draw of the story, at least within the walls of Tom Quad, seems, in our world of over reaction and enforced wonder, as quirky as the adventures themselves.

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